Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Missionary Enterprise

A recent post in this blog was parodied and ripped apart in many comments that followed. Having let it die down for a few weeks, for anyone who still happens to be following who posted, I want to share briefly part of my personal experience and perspective on the so-called missionary enterprise.

I still love to follow technology and science, but 6 months after college graduation I decided to opt out on continuing my career in electronic engineering in willing response to a call I felt that a personal God who loves me immensely (with no strings attached), and who earnestly desires to relate with me, had been placing upon my life during my college years. By the early 1990’s I felt I could summarize that call, or mission if you will, in 5 letters—MMMGG: Move Out, Minister, and Multiply the Grace of God.

What, you might ask, is the grace of God? Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it: “ It wasn't so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn't know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It's a wonder God didn't lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! … Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It's God's gift from start to finish! We don't play the major role. If we did, we'd probably go around bragging that we'd done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing….” (Paraphrase of Ephesians 2:1-10; italics added)

As Eric Liddell put it in “Chariots of Fire”, “God made me for a purpose…” In a manner of speaking, I felt God made me for a purpose too: to move out and share the very same treasure He had shared earlier with me-- the same undeserved favor and love which was now mine in Jesus Christ. Though I have my occasional moments of frustration living in a foreign culture (and often write about them in this blog), I feel no sense of being better in any way intrinsically than the people among whom I am living, no more than one might feel superior in sharing with others some incredibly delicious food that someone else cooked. The value is in the goods and the one who cooked them, not the container.

Nor do I have any sort of desire to convert those who respond to a different cultural or governmental system, as was implied in a number of previous comments. I am nobody's secret agent. Quite the contrary: having grown up as a military brat and then having made the sudden move from West Germany following high school graduation to a state university in the southern United States, I was immunized early and re-inoculated often against against the Culture Wars, the “God bless America” mentality, the Christian Right way of looking at things, etc.

As an aside, it’s true, as some commented below, that many wrongs in history have been committed in the name of Christianity. However, to propose that Hitler was a Christian, as was also done below, is no truer than to say Friedrich Nietzsche (“God is dead”) was a Christian because his father was also a Lutheran pastor. That is also not much different than saying those who responded negatively to the earlier post might be Christian simply because they too were exposed earlier in life to Christian traditions and to “Christendom” in general.

It’s also true that historically missionaries have sometimes been used and manipulated quite effectively by the colonial governments behind them. Along these lines, I’m reminded of a picture I took in the Cape Verde Islands while participating in a physical oceanographic expedition way back in 1989 (see below-- a priest toting a cross is  sixth or seventh in line). colonial001 The missionary, in this case a Catholic priest,  was just a part of the larger colonial entourage disembarking from the ship. Looking at him above, I can almost picture him getting off the ship, bowing down, and claiming the whole place for God while the East India Company or whomever from other countries followed to exploit just behind.

Yes, missionaries have sometimes been used as pawns of governments, duped, etc-- not just western European or U.S. governments, but also sometimes of the very countries where they have taken up residence, such as was the case here earlier in the Henry Luce/Chiang Kai Shek era). In a minority of cases they may even have done so knowingly, going along for the ride. Because of that kind of innuendo and idea association in today’s global society, I prefer the term “international Christian worker” to missionary.

Like many who have gone before me, I see myself as a pawn of no earthly government or king. I am, rather, a willing servant of another King, the Lord Jesus Christ. As I stay close to Him (and whenever I stray I turn back again in response to His gentle coaxing), I’m often reminded of his words: "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (John 6)

Like my fellow international workers, I do what I do in an attempt to honor the King and advance His Kingdom. As stated in our organization’s values, “Lost people matter to God. He wants them found.” Now, before the accusation comes again that I’m saying we’re better than anyone else, let me say again: No, we’re all in the same leaking boat. It’s only that Christ has already dropped a line down to rescue me, and I want to pass along that line to others as well.

Yes, I’m an exclusivist. I believe the words of Jesus when he said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). But before I’m accused again of intolerance, how is having my own opinion any different of a Buddhist, Taoist, or secular atheist who express his or her own way of seeing the world? I’m not trying to forcibly convert anyone. I am as entitled as anybody else to my own perspective, a right that would seemingly be abrogated by some.

As an international Christian worker, I’m not into introducing or enforcing a system. It’s a Person I believe in: Jesus Christ. I bask in the privilege of introducing that warm, loving, living, kind, wise, strong, all-powerful Person, who also happens to be fully-God, to others. You can do with Him as you choose. My passion is simply to make the introduction, to learn how to follow Him closer myself, and to help anyone else who comes alongside in your own journey, as you help me on mine. God is big enough to handle the rest.